Apache Sunrise Ceremony

We were honored to be invited to participate in a sacred Apache ritual last week. The Sunrise Ceremony is their four-day version of a bat mitsvah.

When an Apache girl has her first period, preparations are made for this ritual, inducting the girl into womanhood, and introducing her to her ability to heal. This ceremony, as well as other native rituals were banned by the US Government in the early 1900’s. The Freedom of Religion act passed in the 1970’s once again allowed native tribes to publicly practice their religious rites. For seven decades, these dances were held in secret.

The Navajo and other tribes have similar coming of age rites, but they pale in comparison to this arduous journey. Today, about one-third of Apache girls go through the ritual, although due to the expense, most opt for a one-day ceremony or to join in group ceremonies.

Liz and I have friends that are well respected Apache. Ken and Doreen were requested by the parents of the girl who was the focus of the ceremony – the Saun-Bee-Gish-Sheh –  to be Godparents.

We arrived at the Camp on the San Carlos Reservation early on Sunday morning, the fourth and final day of the ceremony. As I understand it, the other three days are filled with dances that teach the Apache way. The dances are led by the Crown Dancers.

The Apache creation mythology is complex, too difficult to explain here. However, they believe the physical world is inhabited by spirits. They believe they are blood relatives of the trees, rocks, water. The Crown Dancers are not spirits themselves, but have the ability to communicate and summon the spirits.

In the beginning,  White Painted Woman, central to this ceremony, survived the great flood and gave birth to two sons. She is first impregnated by the sun, and gives birth to Killer of Enemies. Then she is impregnated by the rain, and gives birth to Son of Water. The sons kill the Owl Man Giant who raid and steals, and make the world safe for Apaches.

The White Painted woman becomes old, and walks east to the sun, until she meets her younger self and merges, becoming young again – a sort of resurrection story. This is a very abridged version.

The four days of ceremony recount these stories, and teach the girl her duties and responsibilities as an Apache Woman.

We met at the camp, and enjoyed coffee and breakfast – the Godparents provided food for all guests. We were invited not to watch the ceremony, but to participate. That is a great honor. I ashed an Apache about whether or not it is permitted to photograph the ceremony. He advised me to watch the other Apache. He said that if it was only tourists taking pictures, then it would not be appropriate. If other Apache were taking pictures, then it would be okay. Under no circumstances was it permissible to photograph situations where the medicine man was giving a blessing.

For those reasons I left my 35mm SLR in the car, and used my cellphone. After the medicine mans gives his blessings, the dances commence. The Clown maintains order, and the Crown Dancers reenact the stories. We all stand in a circle around the Teepee, and the girl assisted by an older girl that has gone through the rite, dances with drummers and singers behind her.

The dance is not complicated, thankfully for someone as untalented as I am. We dance in step with the drums as the Crown Dancers go from east to west, from west to east, and to north and south…

I wish I had someone to interpret the meanings, as no movement is insignificant. Soon, the Crown Dancers form a line and all of the men in the tribe form a line. An Apache holds a bowl of corn pollen and one by one the men step up, grab a handful of pollen. If they are wearing hats, they uncover their head. They sprinkle the pollen on the Crown Dancers after offering up a prayer, on their head, their shoulders, their feet. They visit each Crown Dancer, and finally the Clown.

As far as I could tell, the only people in this procession were Apache tribe members. After the men, women and children then followed. The drums played, and we danced in step.

Everyone then rejoined the circle. The circle represents to the girl the community supporting her. Soon afterward, the medicine man and the Crown Dancers all in turn make a paint of cornstarch, and begin covering the girl from head to toe. The Godfather soon joins and paints her. This signifies her becoming White Painted Woman, and is bestowed wisdom, and realizes her gift of healing. Then the circle is brought in close, and nobody is allowed to sit, not even spectators.

The Godfather begins throwing the white paint over the crowd. This is a blessing, and is said to heal those with infirmities. They cirlce in a clockwise movement, circling several times.

The entire circle is now directed to form a line, and to dance following the Crown Dancers, White Painted Woman and the Godfather, dancing through the teepee and going around the four trees planted around the periphery. As we dance through the teepee on each pass, men remove their hats, and touch the pole to their left as they enter one direction and turn to exit the other. On the final pass, you turn around in a clockwise direction.

After this, White Painted Woman is blessed again, and receives teaching from elders of the tribe. The teaching is for the tribe and participants also, teaching peace to all, to love your fellow man, to do good and not evil. One of the elders spoke about Jesus and admonished the tribe to do as Jesus would do.

After four hours of dancing, my calves were a bit sore. I was soaked with sweat, and covered with white paint. I felt purified in a way, and certainly more enlightened than four hours earlier. It was a privilege to be invited to participate. And I have the utmost admiration for the girl, probably twelve years old, who endured four days and nights of this ceremony. I saw in her a strength and determination and stoicism that I cannot imagine in any of our Millenials, nor even in anyone of my generation.




    Hello Mr. Johnson,
    Recently, I showed the film “The Sunrise Dance” (Documentary Educational Resources, 1994, Gianfranco Norelli–filmmaker) to my Language and Culture class. A non-native student of mine, who is taking Dakota at Mankato State University and fancies herself as a voice of all Native people, jumped on me when I told the class that I was showing the film. She said I could not show it because “native people” do not allow others to watch sacred ceremonies. Your discussion above does say that the medicine man should not filmed under any circumstances, and there are images of the medicine man preparing for the ceremony in this film. There are also numerous youtube and other videos online showing Apache girls going through the ceremony. My question is, was my student correct or was she making sweeping generalizations about Native peoples? I would really appreciate your response so that I can use the experience as a “teachable moment” in my class. I did show the film, by the way. Sincerely, Tracy

    1. Hello Tracy,

      You cannot place all native tribes under any single label. The Hopi, for instance, welcome visitors to many of their ceremonies but forbid photography and even sketching ogf their rituals. The Apache of the San Carlos Reservation are welcoming. Some other Apache tribes are less so.

      With any tribe or community, it is best to confer with an elder about what would be appropriate. The Apache elder at San Carlos told me to watch the other Apache, and if they were taking pictures, then it would be okay for me to do so. He said, “don’t be a tourist!”

      And I was told that under no circumstances photograph the medicine man. Even a journalist that was invited by the tribe to the ritual was told not to photographthe medicine man during the ritual.

      The San Carlos Apache often give public performances of their rituals, and these dances are for the public and photography is encouraged. However, at the Powwows I have attended, many of the dances are off limits. The Powwows are first and foremost for the benefit of the various tribes, although guests are welcome to watch.

      I hope this helps.

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